Can I use essential oils if I am pregnant?

I remember reading on the internet when I was pregnant that you shouldn’t really use essential oils when you are pregnant and then it gave a really long list of all the oils to avoid. Since doing my Clinical Aromatherapist training I have taken a different view. I know for myself that if it weren’t for Peppermint essential oil during the early stages of my second pregnancy, I wouldn’t have survived the morning sickness. There is so much contradictory information out there on pregnancy and essential oils that it is confusing and often scary for a pregnant woman. According to David Stewart (The Chemistry of Essential Oils Made Simple, 2010) in order to try and make sense of all this we first must understand the difference between the various schools of aromatherapy. 

  • The German school advocates for the use of essential oils by inhalation.
  • The British school advocates for use of essential oils diluted in carrier oils at a 2.5% or 5% dilution ration applied on the skin, usually as a massage.
  • The French school advocates for a number of different application methods including those listed above as well as applying essential oils neat on the skin, taking essential oils internally and even injection if done by a licensed physician.

The reason the French model incorporates all methods of application is that they only use Therapeutic Grade Essential Oils.  “The British rely on scientific research on animals, using essential oils that are often perfume or food grade, and usually applying only certain components isolated from essential oils rather than the whole oil. This has led to a host of invalid applications of scientific data to the human use of oils. (David Stewart, The Chemistry of Essential Oils Made Simple, 2010)”

Many of the books written from a British school of aromatherapy give lists of essential oils that shouldn’t be used, even if diluted, however different authors have differing views of which essential oils should be on these lists. “For example, birch, basil, oregano, wintergreen and marjoram are oils that are safely applied neat in raindrop technique, a procedure that has been experienced by tens of thousands of

Americans and Canadians with great benefits. (David Stewart; The Chemistry of Essential Oils Made Simple, 2010)”

In the book Aromatherapy for Health Professionals by Shirley and Len Price (2008) they state that “Many books on aromatherapy are derivative and consequently few authors are able to explain their recommendations of particular oils. This lack of firm information has led many aromatherapists  to avoid using any allegedly unsafe oils during the whole gestation period, even though some of the prescribed oils are not necessarily unsafe in relation to pregnancy.”

In her book “Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Practice,” Jane Buckle, Ph.D., R.N.,  states “there are no records of abnormal fetuses or aborted fetuses due to the normal use of essential oils, either by inhalation or topical application. There are no records of a few drops of essential oils taken by mouth causing any problem either”. Debra Raybern in her book Gentle Babies (2010) writes that “Historically, there have been instances where non-therapeutic grade essential oils (adulterated, synthetic and of poor quality) have possibly caused a problem during pregnancy….. The difference is quality.”

David Stewart (The Chemistry of Essential Oils Made Simple, 2010)”writes “When it comes to the oils of marjoram, rosemary, sage or clary sage posing a threat of miscarriage, there has never been a scientific study, or even a documented case of this happening.” Denise Tiran’s book Clinical Aromatherapy for Pregnancy and Childbirth has been reviewed by David Stewart and as he points out she “excludes the use of many good oils like basil, birch, calamus, cassia, cinnamon, clove, fennel, oregano, pine, savory, tansy, thuja and wintergreen, for all purposes when, in fact, all of these oils are beneficial and quite safe when they are of pure 100% therapeutic grade applied with common sense and adherence to a few simple safety precautions.”

Pennyroal (Mentha pulegium) is an oil that is on many taboo lists due to its use in attempted abortions where the pregnant mothers have died. However according to David Stewart (The Chemistry of Essential Oils Made Simple, 2010) “in these cases huge, overdoses of more than 100ml were taken orally.”

Pregnant women should consult their health professional before using essential oils. To be on the safe side, David Stewart (The Chemistry of Essential Oils Made Simple, 2010)” recommends avoiding those oils with hormonal qualities during pregnancy, including sage, clary sage, blue tansy, tarragon, niaouli, cypress, myrtle and wild tansy. He goes on to say that Chamazulene, found in blue tansy, helichrysum and German Chamomile oils also appears to have hormone-regulating abilities.

An investigation into the use of aromatherapy during labour was conducted at the John Radcliffe Hospital between 1990 and 1998 (Burns, Blamey and Lloyd 2000). Aromatherapy was mainly used in the established labour or in the latent phase. The oils used and their reasons for use were as follows:

  • Boswellia carteri (Frankincense) – high anxiety, hyperventilation, hysteria
  • Citrus Limon (lemon) – upper respiratory tract infections, enhance mood
  • Citrus reticulate (mandarin) – relaxation, enhance mood
  • Eucalyptus globulus (blue gum) – nasal infection, pain relief
  • Jasminum grandiflorum (Jasmine Absolute) – depression, anxiety, assist labour, help expel placenta
  • Lavendula angustifolia (lavender) – anxiety, stress, headaches, after perineal suturing
  • Mentha x piperita (peppermint) – nausea, vomiting, headaches, pyrexia
  • Roman Chamomile – mothers with multiple allergies, eczema, anxiety, after perineal suturing
  • Rosa centifolia (rose absolute) – depression, anxiety, bereavement, to enhance labour
  • Salvia sclarea (clary sage) – assisting contractions, to enhance labour.
Basic Birth Kit – From Gentle Babies by Debra Raybern (2010)
  • Essential 7 Kit – includes Lavender essential oil, Lemon essential oil, Peppermint essential oil, Joy essential oil blend, PanAway essential oil blend, Peace & Calming essential oil blend and Purification essential oil blend. The 101 Uses for the Essential 7 kit can be downloaded from the Article Library at www.sharinggreathealth.org
  • Valor – Balance the body physically and emotionally and aids central nervous system relaxation and combats on-going aches and pains.
  • Gentle Baby – Helps comfort, soothe and reduce stress during pregnancy, prevents stretch marks and scars and aids prenatal bonding with baby and prepares perineum for labour.
  • Clary Sage – Supports labour, balancing of hormones and much more.
  • Fennel – supports lactation, digestion and colic.
  • ClaraDerm Spray – prepares perineum before birth and aids in healing after birth.
  • Plus I would add a diffuser. I couldn’t live without my essential oil diffusers.
Guidelines for good practice when using essential oils for pregnant and childbearing women – From Aromatherapy for Health Professionals by Shirley and Len Price 2008
  • The use of aromatherapy during pregnancy, labour and the puerperium must be complementary to normal maternity care.
  • Aromatherapy practitioners should limit the number of ‘relatively safe’ essential oils’, which they use, rather than administer a wide range for which there may be very little safety data.
  • Oils should be administered in as low a dose as is required to obtain a therapeutic effect.
  • The number of oils blended together should be kept to a minimum in order to identify the culprit if side effects occur.
  • If there is any doubt regarding the safety of a specific essential oil, practitioners should avoid using it on pregnant women.

Essential Oils and Labour Testimonial

For the birth of my third child, I used essential oils. My waters broke about 3 am and the contractions started almost straight away I think. At lunchtime, contractions were pretty close together and regular so I went into the birthing unit but they sent me home saying I wasn’t far enough along. The midwife gave me some clary sage and said to inhale it. When I got home around 5, my friend Kim suggested I try putting some of the clary sage oil on my feet as well as inhale it. She didn’t have any more Clary Sage on her but had a blend called Dragon Time, so she put that in the diffuser, as it has Clary Sage in it.  The oils and the diffuser were very relaxing as I was labouring. I gave birth to Oliver at 12.30pm.

Fionna Ralph, Stockton

Price, Shirley, and Price, Len (2007) Aromatherpay for Health Professionals, 3rd Edition. Churchill Livingstone, London
Raybern, Debra (2010) Gentle Babies, 3rd Edition, Growing Health Homes LLC, USA
Stewart, David 2010) The Chemistry of Essential Oils made simple, Third Edition, Care Publications, Marble Hill, Missouri

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